Archive for July, 2020

Aeschylus’s “The Persians” flipped expectations – but not everyone found it an eye-opening show.

Monday, July 27th, 2020
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As Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings noted, last weekend’s production of Aeschylus‘s The Persians at Epidaurus flipped ancient expectations: the cast did not wear masks, but the audience did. We wrote about the production here, and it should be available online soon. Highly recommended, But please note: not everyone found it an eye-opening performance. See above.

Below, Alicia Stallings’s looking fashionable with mask. Both photos by her husband, the eminent Greek journalist John Psaropoulos.

First time ever on July 25: Aeschylus’s “The Persians” will be livestreamed from Epidaurus’ ancient theater! Be there!

Friday, July 24th, 2020
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For the first time ever, an classic ancient Greek drama will be live-streamed from the ancient theater of Epidaurus. On Saturday, July 25, Aeschylus’ The Persians will be performed by actors of the Greek National Theater.

The play is Aeschylus’s The Persians, circa 472 B.C., about the Persian-Greek war. The playwright himself had participated in the crucial battle it describes, so he knew what he was talking about. It is not only the oldest surviving Greek play, but Aeschylus’s most powerful antiwar statement, praising the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of democratic norms.

Don’t speak Greek? Relax. The 90-minute performance will have English subtitles. The livestream will take place here. The livestream begins at 10 a.m., and the performance at 11 a.m., California time (again, go here for the countdown).

The “storyline,” such as it is, consists of one long lament about the defeat of Xerxes and the Persians at the hands of the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). You might say that this is the Greeks, rubbing it in. They did the same thing with Euripides’s The Trojan Women.

So here’s what happens: the play takes place in Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. Xerxes’s mother, Atossa, waits for the news of the expedition against the Greeks.  She laments in what is may be he first dream sequence in the Western theater history.  A messenger arrives, and describes the Persians’ defeat at the Battle of Salamis. 

Atossa beckons the spirit of her late husband, the Persian leader Darius. He appears, and condemns his son’s hubris, and prophesies another defeat. The play ends with the king leading engaging the chorus in a long lament about Persia’s defeat. He particularly notes the folly of building pontoon bridges over the Hellespont strait to attack. Of course, the Persians destroyed the bridges, which provided access for retreat. It was a disaster. Xerxes beheaded those who built the bridges, and punished the strait, too, by throwing fetters into it, having his soldiers shout at it, branding it with red-hot irons, and giving it three hundred lashes. (Herodotus noted it was a “highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont,” but totally in character for Xerxes.)

The ancient theater at Epidaurus is known for its excellent acoustics. It normally seats 14,000, in non-COVID times.

The drama will be live-streamed at 9 p.m. Athens time (GMT +2) through livefromepidaurus.gr . It will also be available at the websites of the National Theatre of Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and the Ministry of Culture and Sports, as well as the National Theatre of Greece’s YouTube channel.

Morgan Meis’s “The Drunken Silenus” and the way the mind works – and sometimes doesn’t

Monday, July 20th, 2020
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To understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a moral of him.

A review of Morgan Meis‘s The Drunken Silenus appeared in Art in America, and it’s so much fun – lively and insulting and laudatory at once (in the spirit of the book) – that I thought it would be a great way to wind up a very long Monday. Here’s how Jackson Arn’s piece ends, by comparing Morgan Meis with Nietzsche: 

If there’s a progenitor for this kind of writing, it’s Nietzsche. This is a strange thing to point out, since Meis spends much of The Drunken Silenus insulting Nietzsche. He says The Birth of Tragedy was the only totally worthwhile book Nietzsche ever wrote. He says Nietzsche was full of shit. Mostly, he says Nietzsche was crazy. He calls Nietzsche crazy, or insane, or stark-raving mad at least a dozen times in the book, until it becomes a kind of gangster nickname, like Fat Tony or One-Ball Riley, at once a put-down and a term of endearment.

Name-calling, of course, was a Nietzsche trademark, and Meis is never more Nietzschean than when he’s slinging mud at a dead man. He has Nietzsche’s skepticism of progress, on both a historical and an expository level, as well as Nietzsche’s gift for making arguments in brief, brilliant flashes. His ideal form is the compressed, Nietzschean aphorism. Some of these will change your perception of Rubens so utterly that they are likely to seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, like Meis’s observation that in order to understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a mortal out of him. Other aphorisms work the opposite way, flirting with obviousness from the outset—for instance, “A terrible father can produce a great son or daughter. A great father will produce terrible offspring just as often as not.” To borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, someone else who tells stories in spirals, “Well . . . yeah, that’s how all of life works.”

He specialized in name-calling.

Loose, strange, essayistic books live or die on a single question: are their various parts connected because they actually have something to say to each other, or because the author has forced them together? The clutter of ideas and subjects doesn’t necessarily have to cohere into a thesis, but at some point it should gain enough momentum to turn of its own accord, suggesting something more than what the author uses it to show. Meis achieves this tricky feat, and does so in large part because his book is really about, per Mulaney, how all of life works.

How humiliating, to write that last sentence—how pretentious, how arrogant! I can’t even imagine writing a whole book like The Drunken Silenus, but I’m glad Meis did. He’s willing to risk redundancy and pretentiousness, because he knows he has something worth risking them for. For all his casual displays of brilliance, his goal isn’t to introduce readers to stunning new ideas but to remind them of a depressing old idea: existence is long, painful, and pointless, and while art can do a lot to lessen the load, it can’t carry all of it. An unsexy point, which he makes very sexily.

Read the whole thing here. It’s fun.

René Girard: “The economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual.”

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
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An excerpt from my new volume for my Book Haven readers:  Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, just out with Bloomsbury. I have so many favorite bits in the book, the first-ever collection of his media interviews. What to choose?

I can do no better than give you a potpourri of his thought – though the whole volume is a potpourri, really – from the chapter called, “Revelation Is Dangerous. It’s the Spiritual Equivalent of Nuclear Power.”

The interviewer is French journalist Michel Treguer, whose wide-ranging Q&As with the French thinker are lively and punchy and capture René in conversation. As Treguer explains in the introduction: “I got into some lively arguments with him over the airwaves of France Culture. But there was something very strange about even these debates—the tit-for-tat and the aggressive verbal sparring that would have led any other thinker to sever ties with me once and for all left René Girard as serenely benevolent, interested, curious, amicable, and affectionate as ever. Not at all like the others, that one.”

Here goes:

Marx

MT: We’ve already spoken a little about this, there are no doubt similarities in form if not in content between Marxist and Christian eschatology: the idea of a paradise to come.

RG: Unlike Nazism, Marxism wants of course to save victims, but it thinks that the process that makes victims is fundamentally economic. Marxism says: “Let’s give up the consolations of religion, let’s get down to serious business, let’s talk about caloric intake and standards of living, and so on.”

He missed the point.

Once the Soviet state is created, the Marxists see first of all that the wealth is drying up and then that economic equality doesn’t stop the various kinds of discrimination, which are much more deeply ingrained. Then, because they’re utopians, they say: “There are traitors who are keeping the system from functioning properly”; and they look for scapegoats. In other words,
the principle of discrimination is stronger than economics. It’s not enough to put people on the same social level because they’ll always find new ways of excluding one another. In the final analysis, the economic, biological, or racial criterion that is responsible for discrimination will never be found, because it’s actually spiritual. Denying the spiritual dimension of Evil is as
wrong as denying the spiritual dimension of Good.

Sartre (and Virginia Woolf)

RG: What makes Sartre seem a little ridiculous today, though it’s also touching and even worthy of admiration, is his desire to have a philosophical “system.” Like Descartes. I myself have been accused of building a system, but it isn’t true. I’m not just saying that to seem up-to-date, I’m too old for that sort of thing.

She shows the agonizing struggle.

I find the analyses of the other’s role in what Sartre calls “the project” – the café waiter in Being and Nothingness—the analyses of bad faith, and of coquetry, to be marvelous. It’s all very close to mimetic desire. He even invented a metaphysical category that he calls “for the other,” “for others.”

But, strangely, for him, desire belongs solely to the category of the “poursoi,” “for itself.” He doesn’t see that the subject is torn between the Self and the Other. And yet he admires Virginia Woolf, who shows this agonizing struggle in admirable fashion, notably in The Waves. This is another example of the superiority of the novel over philosophy. Deep down, Sartre
was very comfortably petit bourgeois, a lover of tourism, and too even-keeled to become a true genius.

The Structuralists

RG: Modern structuralism is floating in a void because it doesn’t have a reality principle. It’s a kind of idealism of culture. You’re not supposed to speak of things, but of “referents”: the real is conceived in linguistic terms, instead of
bringing language back down to reality, as was done back when the real was real. This way of thinking knows nothing but difference. It cannot comprehend that the same, the insistently identical, correspond to something real.

From the structuralist point of view, there is no difference between a class of real objects and a class of monstrous objects, which in my opinion are a trace left by the disorder of mimetic crisis, without which the genesis of myth cannot occur. Structuralism studies sequences with real women and real jaguars, on the one hand, and, on the other, sequences with jaguar-women, and it puts them all on the same level.

Durkheim, at least, was able to say: “How curious, there are real differences in mythical thinking – human intelligence is beginning to function – but there are also false categories. Primitive thought is sometimes based on divisions that are similar to our own, and sometimes on totally meaningless categories.” Structuralism does an admirable job of highlighting differences.

But if you study the development of human thought, you have to come right out and admit that modern rationalism isn’t the equivalent of myth, because it has done away with the jaguar-women. If there were dragons in the user’s manuals of Toyotas and Nissans, it’s unlikely that the Japanese auto industry would have succeeded in spreading its products all over the world.

After Darwin

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

What next?

 

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

MT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display
a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents.

I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

Want a copy of the book for your very own? Go here

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Happy birthday, E.B. White!

Saturday, July 11th, 2020
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Oh, and he loved animals, too.

E.B. White penned what is arguably the greatest children’s book of all time, Charlotte’s Web. He also wrote a classic handbook for writers everywhere, The Elements of Style. But he was also a great promoter of mankind in general and an indefatigable letter-writer.

Today is his 121st birthday (he died in 1985). We celebrate with a letter he wrote on March 30, 1973, to a despondent man who had lost hope in humanity:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

Oh, and the White quotation that forms the headline for this story in Kate DiCamillo‘s foreword to Charlotte’s Web.

There goes a Johns Hopkins landmark: Dick Macksey’s magnificent home for sale!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
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His personal library. Part of it.

Hollis Robbins, Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University, tweeted a sad tweet last night. What a loss for Johns Hopkins University! We’ve written about the legendary Johns Hopkins polymath, Richard Macksey, Professor of Everything, here and here and here and here, and, well in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThe French theorist and Macksey were longtime colleagues.

Dick Macksey died last July, and now his home has been stripped of its magnificent personal library and its future is in the hands of realtors. Weep for it! Weep! Weep! Weep!

The library was a marvel for Johns Hopkins students, and Dick Macksey invited them into his home to teach and share his books. As I wrote about the photo above:

Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

But what is a home without it’s heart? I’ll tell you what it is:

Dick Macksey at home with friends.

“This stately Italianate Renaissance residence is situated on a well landscaped double lot boasting a private walled courtyard and secluded walled garden. Exquisite detail and proportions abound throughout. Lovely 30 foot entrance hall with distinctive “double-staircase” and palladian door to terrace, 36 foot living room with fireplace, handsome built ins, and access to terrace. Inviting dining room with fireplace and access to terrace. 12 sets of stylish arched french doors on first floor, 5-6 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. 26 foot library with fireplace and 14 foot ceiling. Take advantage of this rare urbane opportunity slip away.”

Well, as Hollis Robbins says, without the books, it’s just a house. But what a beauty it is nevertheless. You can look at more photos of it here. No price is listed. Are you surprised?

Below, the video of the home. Close your eyes, and imagine the books. Imagine it crammed with books.

Postscript on 7/9: It seems that everyone has a Dick Macksey story. Here’s one from Steve McKenna: “I actually attended a grad class in that house. I was 22. If you hadn’t read everything, he could be…hard to follow. So when I got lost, I would just scan book spines. He was a bit like Borges’ Funes the Memorious. Macksay held court in his library. He would begin by asking us what we’d just read, and would launch into a two-and-a-half hour disquisition that might go from Borges to Derrida to Catullus to Goethe to Hart Crane and always to … Proust (to which all roads returned for him, and from whom all roads also departed) … you didn’t come away with the sense that it was madness, just that he was moving on a level so stratospherically above us that we were idiots. But the shelves were amazing.”  Martha Reineke added: “Reflecting on what that home was, with the amazing books and conversations over so many years, makes the realtor video even more poignant. A house is never emptier than when its shelves are bereft of books.”

Martin Amis on the failure of the intellectuals: “The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist.”

Monday, July 6th, 2020
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Martin Amis calls it like it is.

Martin Amis goes on a rant about Lenin and the Soviet Union in the New York Times. As rants go, it’s top drawer. Enjoy for the verbal fireworks.

He begins: “It was a very bad idea from the outset, and one forced into life — or the life of the undead — with barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror. The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make ‘a total claim.'”

He continues:

As one historian of Russia put it, it is to the intellectuals that we turn for “real prowess of wrong-headedness.” But it wasn’t just the pundits, the writers (H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw) and the philosophers (J.P. Sartre, A. J. Ayer) who swallowed the Moscow line; so did historians, sociologists, politicians, and even businessmen. To its supporters the allure of the Communist Party was twofold. The secondary appeal was that it gave you the (not quite delusive) impression that you were playing your part in world events; the primary appeal was that the program looked wonderful on paper, and spoke to the optimism and idealism of many of the most generous hearts and minds.

Two of a kind. Read about Lenin’s brain here.

It was vaguely understood that there had been some loss of life: the terror and famine under Lenin, the Civil War, forced collectivization (“Ten millions,” Stalin said to Churchill, holding up both palms, in the Kremlin in 1942), the burgeoning system of state slavery known as the gulag (created under Lenin), the Great Purge of 1937-38.All that could be set aside, for now, because (a) revolutions are always violent, and (b) the ends supposedly justify the means.

As for the first point, the French revolutionary terror lasted from June 1793 to July 1794, and claimed more than 16,000 victims, no more than a busy couple of weeks for the Bolsheviks (and imagine if Robespierre had kept at it until 1830). As for the second point, well, there is a counterproposition: Means shape ends, and tend to poison them. We all know, now, what we think of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Anyway, the means were all the Soviet citizen was ever going to get. Western doublethink and selective blindness on this question is a very rich field; the wisest and most stylish guide to it is Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), by Robert Conquest, to whom we will necessarily return.

Nabokov was the first one to see it with an “illusionless eye,”  the critic Edmund Wilson, his longtime correspondent, indulged the Bolsheviks. Amis does not indulge Wilson:

Conquest working at his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

By 1972 Wilson might have found time to read the three outstanding memoirs of the period: I Chose Freedom, by Viktor Kravchenko (1946), Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967), and Hope Against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1970).

Kravchenko was an apparat high-up who defected immediately after the war; Ginzburg was a provincial don and journalist who was found guilty of Trotskyism; and Mandelstam was the wife, and then the widow, of the great poet Osip (1891-1938). Cumulatively, these books persuade you of a disconcerting truth: Compared with Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany was a terrestrial paradise — except for Communists and Jews (and, later, Gypsies and homosexuals).

Kravchenko, Ginzburg and Mandelstam show us a society from which the concept of trust had been completely excised — a society where the conversational meaning of the question “Do they write?” was “Do they write letters of denunciation to the secret police?” You couldn’t trust your parents; you couldn’t trust your children. In addition, everyone was terrified all the time, right up to and including Stalin, who feared assassination at every waking minute. When he flew to Tehran for the first Big Three summit, his plane was escorted by 27 fighters; when he entrained for Potsdam (the third and final summit), his bodyguards numbered 18,500. By contrast, ordinary Germans knew no panic until 1943, as the reckoning loomed, and as the cities were being bombed nightly, then daily, then daily as well as nightly.

Solzhenitsyn in a long tradition.

The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist. The first consciousness-shifting book was Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968). Very soon the samizdat version was circulating in Russia; and freshly enlightened parents would wonder if their growing teenagers were “ready for Conquest” and the attendant shock. Conquest had time to add The Nation Killers and Lenin, but not long enough to add Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1976) — before the translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was complete in its three volumes (1973-75). This was and is a visionary nonfiction epic written by an artist in the Russian Orthodox, old-regime tradition of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Hereafter the great argument (like the original Marxist idea) had only a vampiric existence — technically dead, but still animate.

Read the whole thing here.

Christopher Lydon, Robert Pogue Harrison discuss our “worldwide theater of imitated desire”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
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“HISTORY IS A TEST FOR MANKIND, BUT WE KNOW VERY WELL THAT MANKIND IS FAILING THAT TEST.” – RENÉ GIRARD

Is Geryon an image of our time?

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions’ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

A recording of the conversation is available at the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Entitled Opinion channel here.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Radio host Lydon

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison.

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.”

Radio host Harrison

Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

Listen to the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“THE ONE WHO BELIEVES HE CAN CONTROL VIOLENCE BY SETTING UP DEFENSES IS IN FACT CONTROLLED BY VIOLENCE.” – ROBERT HARRISON